What are we looking for in those FB photos?

In an article called The Machine Zone in The Atlantic, these breathtaking stats about on-line photos are revealed:

“Facebook is the single largest photo sharing service in the world. In 2008, when the site had 10 billion photographs archived, users pulled up 15 billion images per day. The process was occurring 300,000 per second. Click. Photo. Click.

In 2010, Facebook had uploaded 65 billion images, and they were served up at a peak rate of 1 million per second. By 2012, Facebook users were uploading 300 million photos per day. And early this year, Facebook announced users had entrusted them with 240 billion photos.

If we assume the ratio of photos uploaded to photos viewed has not declined precipitously, users are probably pulling up billions of Facebook photos per day at a rate of millions per second. Click. Photo. Click.Facebook is the single largest photo sharing service in the world. In 2008, when the site had 10 billion photographs archived, users pulled up 15 billion images per day. The process was occurring 300,000 per second. Click. Photo. Click.

In 2010, Facebook had uploaded 65 billion images, and they were served up at a peak rate of 1 million per second. By 2012, Facebook users were uploading 300 million photos per day. And early this year, Facebook announced users had entrusted them with 240 billion photos.

If we assume the ratio of photos uploaded to photos viewed has not declined precipitously, users are probably pulling up billions of Facebook photos per day at a rate of millions per second. Click. Photo. Click.”

Predictably, The Atlantic and author Alexis Madrigal harbor dark suspicions about what drives our interest in these photos.  

What if the 400 minutes a month people spend on Facebook is mostly (or even partly) spent in the machine zone, hypnotized, accumulating ad impressions for the company?

Here’s my contention: Thinking about the machine zone and the coercive loops that initiate it has great explanatory power. It explains the “lost time” feeling I’ve had on various social networks, and that I’ve heard other people talk about. It explains how the more Facebook has tuned its services, the more people seem to dislike the experiences they have, even as they don’t abandon them. It helps explain why people keep going back to services that suck them in, even when they say they don’t want to.

This seems to me, as a piece of criticism, almost entirely habitual.  The only thing more certain than each new wave of technology is the generation of intellectuals who exert themselves to show how this technology puts our agency, autonomy and liberty at risk. Note especially the term “hypnotized.”  Any time a deep thinker can find evidence that we are hypnotized, well, mission accomplished.  Put down your pen and walk away from the table!  

I don’t doubt that there is a darker side to our consumption of all these photos, but let us cast the net a little wider.  I think we are looking at all those photos in search of something. Actually, in search of many things.  Let’s have a wonder what.  

Reference

“The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook.” 2013. The Atlantic.  (August 4, 2013).  For the full article, click here.  

Acknowledgments

To Steve Crandall for pointing out the article.  To Martin Silverman and his book Disconcerting Issue which opens with his respondents reading the newspaper looking for stories that make their lives make sense.  

Silverman, Martin G. 1971. Disconcerting Issue; Meaning and Struggle in a Resettled Pacific Community. University of Chicago Press.

 

7 thoughts on “What are we looking for in those FB photos?”

  1. Very interesting. I share the feeling that we are looking for something, but perhaps that’s just an illusion, one of those tricks the brain plays on us. I’ll wager that one day we’ll find out that scrolling through pictures on Facebook activates some primitive cognitive mechanism; evolution has wired us for Facebook.

    Great cat photos, too! Are they yours?

    1. Laura, yes, maybe patterns are a thing of the past…but we keep looking for them, as you say, a trick our brains continue to play on us.

      And that is Vivienne demonstrating their her balance is way better than her sisters!
      Thanks, Grant

  2. A bundle of things to say here.
    First up, I think the elephant in the room is inattention.
    Just as we can watch TV and surf Facebook and not always get everything the show creator or the TV ad man wanted us to notice, so it works the other way around, we can surf around Facebook at the same time as chatting with a friend on Facebook chat (or on Skype) and not really notice all the pictures or ad-impressions we’re exposed to. We’re not hypnotised at all, we exercise control through selective attention.

    Second, there’s a big assumption about viewing keeping up with production/uploading. I think the figures from Flickr showed that wasn’t really the way of it, there is some kind of saturation. We can generate more images than we have time to view.

    Third, you are right, there are a lot of pictures and there are times when we go into a browsing binge.
    (I wonder if it links to the DVD TV show watching binge.)
    What are we searching for? Some ideas:

    – The experience of the flaneur, impressions, stimulation.
    – The zen experience of the train window, landscape passing by, stirring thoughts and then moving on.
    – We’re hungry for the faces of people – some we haven’t seen in a long time, some we saw yesterday, but if we assume we used to be a tribe who spent the evening around the camp fire, now we can be surrounded by faces through our computer screen?
    – Sometimes it’s the vicarious living – pictures of someone else’s holiday?
    – The data are for “images” uploaded, rather than “pictures” – sometimes it’s about browsing through a hundred comedic images. Entertainment – but almost a new form – it’s visual communication…?

    1. Indy, fabulous observations, thanks. And yes are we bingeing here as we do on Netflix? And here we know that it is at least a self willed hypnosis if that. We are not someone’s patsy but our own. This really out to be a title for a country and western song. And yes, a lot of this could be driven by a search for the person we used to be, as captured in relationships, now that we are rocketing into the future. A search for photographic continuities. A kinship as David Schneider might have said through shared photos, shared membership in a photo, these days not insubstantial as a connection even if fleeting. Thanks! Grant
      p.s.. did you see Adam Kuper’s review of Sahlins’ Kinship book in a recent TLS?

  3. What are we searching for? Undoubtedly more than one thing. I think of Levi-Strauss’ words here, for some reason; maybe we’re searching for both the raw and the cooked.

    Raw: fresh images, new things, before unseen, from wildly to mildly exotic, strange. Enriching our stock of stimulation. Google Earthing ourselves to every corner of the globe.

    Cooked: familiar images, another picture of the grandchildren, reassuring, maintaining our stable connections in the era of disruptive instability.

    Both satisfy in different ways.

    Could be…

    Hypnotized? Well, given that we’re unaware of so much of what drives our behavior I can see the metaphor’s appeal. The implication that the hypnotist is engaged in intentional spell-casting breaks down for me; most of us are probably posting raw and cooked images to connect or be recognized, not to control others’ behavior. I can see Facebook itself as the hypnotist, gradually modifying our behavior to de-sensitize us to our natural modesty or insecurity about sharing information, visual and otherwise.

    And, I’m skeptical of claims that people “dislike” the Facebook experience. Sounds like the kind of de rigeur responses people have when asked about McDonald’s or Wal-Mart or their resistance to advertising. Like the probably apocryphal Yogi Berraism: “nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

    1. Tom, brilliant! Yes, some strange combination of the two. These are navigational satellites and we respond to one only to strengthen the signal of the other. Our new polarity. Really good. Thanks! Grant

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